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"End of the World" - Part One
The destruction of this world was never taught by Jesus.
As I write this article, I have been analyzing the Greek in Jesus’s verses in Matthew, chapter twenty-four. Those verses are his answer to a question from his students in Matthew 24:3 about, “the end of the world.” That phrase takes the beautiful, insightful, poetic, and prophetic words of Jesus and reduces them to a threat he never made. In this article, I am going to look at what the Greek words he and his apostles used really mean, but let me start by saying that those words cannot refer to the destruction of the planet.
Christianity is often seen as an "apocalyptic" religion, looking forward to "the end of the world," but that attitude is from its various preachers and teachers, not its founder. Jesus actually never says anything about "the end of the world" as the kind of apocalypse Christianity promotes. I welcome any challenges based on Jesus’s words that argue that Jesus taught about an “end time.”
The phrase Jesus and his students always used that is translated as “the end of the world” means “the culmination of an era.” The Greek words used are synteleia (συντέλεια) meaning "culmination," a word only used four times by Jesus, always in this phrase, and aion. (αἰῶνος) meaning "era" used in forty-one verses by Jesus in many different contexts. This phrase translated as "the end of the world" is used only four times by Jesus. This phrase appears three times with definite articles "the culmination of the era," and once without a definite article "a culmination of an era," (Matthew 13:39).
There are also a number of verses where Jesus uses the Greek word translated as "end" that are interpreted as referring to the end of the world. However, this is not the same Greek word as appears in the "end of the world" phrase above, but its root word telos (τέλος). This word is only used by Jesus eleven times, meaning "purpose" or "goal". The synteleia adds a prefix to this root meaning "together." The sense is the “whole goal” or the “joint purpose.”
There are several Greek words translated into English as “the world.” Making judgments about Jesus’s view from English translations of his words is difficult because he uses four different Greek words to refer to different aspects of our world. The most common is kosmos meaning “the world order,” what we might call “society” or a given political “regime.” The next most common, ge (γῆς), refers to the physical planet. Then, the least common Greek word for “world” is oikoumene (οἰκουμένῃ) which means “the inhabited region. It is used in Matthew 24:14, as the place where the “good news” will be preached. That verse finishes with the idea that is translated as “then the end will come,” but what the Greek says is “the culmination (telos) will arrive (heko).”
However, in Jesus’s “end of the world” phrase, another word is used: aion meaning “age,” “era” or the current situation, but, and this makes it very tricky because this word also means “a lifetime.” So the phrase translated as “the end of the world” that Jesus used doesn't mean the finishing of the planet or even the finishing of society. It means the finishing of an era. It could also mean the finishing of an individual life. Jesus uses this shared meaning as a play on words, some of his verses applying to both the finishing of an era and the finishing of a lifetime. Many of Jesus’s verses conflate the two things, our individual deaths with the end of an era. This hits me as more profound than more apocalyptic perspectives.
Jesus's prophecy of the "end times" in Matthew 24:6 joins the ideas of the finishing of the temple in Jerusalem, the finishing of the state of Israel, the end of a given age, and the finishing of each of our individual lives. This is very clever and worthy of our attention.
The "End" as a "Goal"
Jesus only uses the word translated as “end” in the “end of the world” phrase four times, always in that phrase. Other times that Jesus is translated as talking about the “end,” the word is usually the root of that phrase’s word, telos. This root word is translated from ancient Greek in a variety of ways including, “performance,” “consummation,” “result,” “product,” “outcome,” “end,” “achievement,” “attainment,” “goal,” “state of completion,” “maturity,” “services rendered,” “something done,” “task,” “duty,” “toll,” and “custom.” Notice that it never means “end” in the sense of the destruction of something, the ceasing of its existence. It refers to the opposite: the production of something new.
However, this root word is not the same as the word translated as "end” in "the end of the world" phrase. Matthew 13:39 is the first mention of this phrase. In that verse and the other three of its repetitions, "end" is always synteleia. This word is translated in other ancient Greek works as "joint contribution for the public burdens", "compulsory provision of recruits", and "a body of citizens who contributed jointly to bear public burdens." This perspective is interesting because it implies that this consummation is a general obligation. The prefix "syn" means "together." However, this does not seem to be the primary way Jesus used this word. More generally, this word is translated as "the consummation of a scheme", "full realization", and, in referring to grammar, "completed action." This appears to be Jesus’s view of “the finishing,” that there is a plan and this is its goal.
The "End" as a "Consummation"
This question from the apostles to Jesus in Matthew 24:3 is translated as (KJV), "Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?"
At this point, Jesus had predicted his death, but it really didn't seem like the apostles believed him. They certainly don't seem focused on a "second coming" after Jesus's death, though that idea has become such a big part of Christian teaching. Nor were they focused on the "end of the world." Those ideas come, rightly or wrongly, from what Jesus is about to say, not what he has said to the apostles before this.
The phrase with which the apostles ask uses both synteleia and aion. A better translation of their question is: Tell us, when will this happen and what does your presence signify about a culmination of an era? The parallel verse in Mark 13:4 translates the synteleia as "fulfilled." This question has a context: the apostles were just told that the Temple would fall. This changes the meaning of the answers that Jesus gives to his students, and it should change its translation in the Gospel. Out of the current versions, we get the idea of a second coming, but Jesus is talking generally about how his presence leading to the end of an era, specifically, the end of the Old Testament era, the fall of the temple, and the scattering of the Jewish nation, the spread of Judean teachings among the foreigners.
Do these statements also apply to the end of our world, the destruction of the world we know? Though Jesus talks about the passing of the “earth and sky,” he does not connect those ideas to these statements. They apply to the finishing of any civilization or era. They also apply to the finishing of every life. There is a greater meaning here, especially in terms of Jesus’s presence at the culmination of these events. We know that all our lives end. There is no denying this fact, but Jesus’s resurrection teaches us something important about the finishing of our lives, that, despite appearances, that finishing of life doesn’t take place here and now.
The Christian church has found a benefit throughout history in preaching that the end of the world is imminent. Their motivation is the same as politicians and scientists today preaching the end of the world through global warming. By magnifying the immediacy of the threat, such organizations justify increasing their power.
However, there is a more certain, more pressing threat to us all individually, our own deaths, the end of our personal worlds. Jesus’s uses his ability to see the ending of his era, the Judean world as it was then, as an analogy for the end of each individual’s life, a crisis coming to us all, one at a time, in our own places, a crisis more important personally as some future “end of the world” is generally.
In future articles, I will look at other “end times” aspects of Jesus’s words, his parables, and phrases to show how they work to describe a culmination, not destruction. In the next article, I will look at the “coming of the son of man” and Jesus’s last use of the phrase, “the culmination of the age.”